Smaller churches appear to have some advantage over larger bodies as efforts to resume in-person worship gatherings continue, despite the emergence of new hot spots. The number of churches that don’t plan to reopen until “sometime next year” has grown from 1% to 5% in a month, according to researcher George Barna. The most recent example: Andy Stanley’s multi-site megachurch in Atlanta, Ga.
“We cannot guarantee your safety,” the pastor of North Point Community said in a video announcement. Stanley cited his state’s uptick in Coronavirus cases, the results of a member survey, and the experience of churches that have already reopened only to witness a rise in illnesses.
In Illinois, many IBSA churches relaunched in-person gatherings in June and July, adding services, spreading out chairs, or blocking off every other pew to help churchgoers maintain social distancing.
Current guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health recommends that churches limit attendance to 25% of building capacity or 100 attenders, whichever is lower. Many IBSA churches can operate within the guidelines, but some have delayed reopening anyway, particularly in hard-hit communities.
The vast majority of churches in the Chicago Metro Baptist Association remained closed over the summer, said Rick Dorsey, pastor of Beacon Hill Missionary Baptist Church and the chair of the association’s administrative council. While many are planning late summer or fall reopenings, some churches in at-risk communities are waiting.
“Many African-American churches are choosing to be extra cautious before deciding to begin to reopen,” Dorsey said, “especially churches whose membership include a larger percentage of those considered to be at higher risk by the medical community.”
Early in the pandemic’s sweep across Illinois, downstate communities were less affected than the northern part of the state. The state’s current increases are more widespread, with the highest testing positivity in the south. In central Illinois, a non-IBSA church in Litchfield saw an outbreak of at least 25 cases after restarting in-person services in June.
In July, Gov. J.B. Pritzker subdivided the four regions originally established to identify resurgences of the virus into 11 regions. He also released new metrics that could bring back restrictions.
If a region sees a sustained increase in the 7-day rolling average in the testing positivity rate, plus an increase in hospital admissions over seven days or reduction in hospital capacity, restrictions would go back into effect, including stricter limits on gatherings. Three consecutive days with a positivity rate greater or equal to 8% would also trigger restrictions.
As church leaders in Illinois brace for a rise in cases, other states renewed restrictions amid further outbreaks. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom resumed the state’s ban on indoor worship services. In Alabama, a Southern Baptist pastor shared a first-person account of a COVID-19 outbreak among his church’s staff and volunteers.
“We didn’t see anything like this in March, April, or May, but what we are watching now can only be described as a wave of infections spreading through our church,” wrote Derek Allen of First Baptist Tillman’s Corner in Mobile. It started in a church staff meeting.
The Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) released a statement encouraging churches to cooperate with government efforts, including contact tracing. The statement, released July 10, says “churches should create a process that utilizes all available means of contacting members and guests of the church’s activities to ensure widespread notice is made in the event of a potential exposure.”
The inability to conduct contact tracing among thousands of worship attenders was a reason Stanley cited in their decision to stay closed.
– Christianity Today, Baptist Press, ERLC, KSDK News